“Centenaries are strange institutions often with complex purposes (sometimes) wonderfully simple minded.”
– C. J. Clarke

“This 80-minute comedy – well it is funny most of the time – is an entertaining and at times embarrassing account of how the nation behaved on the great day.”
– Neil Jillett, The Age (9 December 1988)

Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1988 encountered a contested terrain, as they did 30 years later in January 2018 with many hundreds of thousands joining peaceful Invasion Day demonstrations around the country under the slogan “change the date”. In 1988, Indigenous activists boycotted funding for events supported by the Australian Bicentennial Authority and asked others to do so also. Australia Daze1 was one film project that honoured this. Australia Daze drew its funding from Channel 4 and ABC presales, the AFC (Australian Film Commission) and some state agencies. It was a kind of collective, critical response to the vast, self-aggrandising “celebration of a nation” that washed over the country at the end of the 1980s. The film was directed overall by Pat Fiske (Rocking the Foundations, 1985; Woolloomooloo, 1978), with producers Dennis O’Rourke (Yap: How Did You Know We’d Like TV?, 1981; Half Life, 1986), Graeme Isaac (Wrong Side of the Road, 1981) and Anna Grieve (director of Skipping Girl, 1985) as an associate producer.

The project deployed around 28 crews and directors on 26 January 1988 all around the country. An alphabet of independent filmmakers of the period contributed, from Karin Altmann to Madelon Wilkens and everyone in between. This kind of time-capsule compilation has become commonplace over recent times; but three decades ago, when filmmakers were working with 16mm film, it was less so. The classic documentary portmanteau is the marvellous Loin du Vietnam (Far From Vietnam, 1967), to which a group of French New Wave directors, curated by Chris Marker (and others), contributed largely self-contained short films in what amounted to a political assault on French and American wars in Vietnam and a simultaneous affirmation of ‘authored’ or ‘creative’ documentary. Australia Daze arose from a similar vision, but proceeded differently; aggregated footage was compiled and cut by Denise Haslem and Tim Litchfield under Fiske’s direction, to a chronological arc across 24 hours, intercutting place, perspective, mood and character. The film also drew on ABC and commercial radio and TV coverage of the day’s events.

The coverage is somewhat Sydney-centric. This is not surprising: As Keith Connolly wrote at the time, “This anniversary really is Sydney’s, not Australia’s”2 (he was alluding to the fact that 1788 marked the arrival of the First Fleet, long before ‘the nation’ as such was established in 1901). Nonetheless, among the more memorable scenes are those that Dennis O’Rourke shot in Alice Springs, as well as Graham Chase’s encounters in a Pilbara mining town in Western Australia. Chris Sammers and David Noakes spent the day with Greek and Italian teenagers at the Williamstown pier in Melbourne. Nick Torrens interacted with the less fortunate at Matthew Talbot Hostel, Sue Cornwell was on Sydney Harbour among the greed-is-great nouveau riche of the 1980s, jostling for position in their motorboats as they welcome the kitsch re-enactment of 1788’s fateful ‘tall ships’. Jeni Thornley filmed with a midwife at Paddington Women’s Hospital; Ned Lander was on Bondi Beach.

Juggling these tropes of diversity and inclusion with characters and locations – chosen for their capacity to illustrate conflicting ideological subject positions and perspectives – offered some intriguing insights into the limited parameters of discursive expression at this time. For example, a beautiful cut to a horse being ‘broken in’ in a small fenced yard makes this point succinctly. A political economy of the place in 1988 is almost readable, as the patterns of work and leisure on display deliver an emphasis on primary industries, hospitality and service industries. The Prime Minister declares that Australia has no hierarchy of class, while the visual juxtaposition of poverty and privilege throughout illustrate something of the inequities his affirmations seek to disguise. At this time, one in five Australian families were living below the recognised poverty line.

Historian Verity Burgmann wrote that, “by and large”, those critical historians who decided to participate in the official history “lost control over their work”.3 She cites the reflections of Tim Rowse, an editor of one volume of the official history. His critical account of the process notes that “while wealth is held in obscenely unequal proportions in Australia and […] those with little are vast in number […] the reader (of the official history) will search in vain for any discussion of why so many Australians remain in poverty”.4

The Bicentennial industry spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on projects and events for 1988. Planning began with the Fraser government (1975–1983), whose slogan “Australia’s Achievement” was later revised when Hawke came to power with more emphasis on a multicultural, consensual nationalism: “Celebration of a Nation”; “Let’s Make It Great in ’88” and “Give Us a Hand to Make It Grand”. It was all very ’80s; the official merchandising catalogue of 46 glossy pages included items such as “dehydrated convict sweat”. Of necessity, Australia Daze is both critical of and complicit in that vast and hysterical orchestrated performance of “national identity” – Geoffrey Blainey wrote in the Institute of Public Affairs Review that the “Bicentennial scandal” was control of the Bicentennial Authority by minorities: multiculturalists, Aborigines and socialists.5

“We were ready to slit our wrists after we had seen all the rushes, we were so depressed” remarked Isaac, “but the wonderful redeeming thing is the sense of humour.” Beneath the surface of the film’s playful juxtaposition, driven by critical editorial intent, certain moments crystallise cultural sensibilities specific to this late 1980s Australian experience. The weaving together of poignant, sad, comic and wretched stories with material mined from ‘found’ broadcast sources creates a kaleidoscopic, impressionistic montage that nonetheless manages to sustain the integrity of certain storylines deployed to serve a largely coherent aesthetic sensibility and editorial perspective.

The editorial voice conjured from this strange cacophony of grandiose chauvinism, racism, resistance and disillusionment is more scepticism than righteous indignation. The authorial disposition adopted is one of ironic distance. This perspective, at once compassionate and critical, observes troubling divisiveness. Solidarity and optimism among Indigenous activists – well known spokespersons, 30 years younger – as hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal people assemble with supporters (these scenes directed by Fiske) provides something of a redemptive moment, while white Australian hotel patrons feasting in Cairns parade a nasty reminder of that worrisome layer of hostile racism bubbling underneath the apparently benign surface of the national birthday party. Scrupulously avoiding explicit analysis or commentary, the film offers instead an implicit critique through montage. While Australia Daze is far from uncommitted, the unifying voice conjured by these means offers a liberal critique inviting the spectator to judge for themselves.

A contrasting work dealing in similar story territory is First Time Tragedy Second Time Farce (John Cumming, Jane Madsen & James Swinson, 1989). This film screened at the Cinema Museum in London on Australia Day 2018, marking the 30th anniversary of the Bicentennial. This film, which examines the First Fleet re-enactment and resistance to this from Indigenous activists, has a more ‘experimental’ edge, with theatrical tableaus, ironic juxtaposition and historical and poetic Indigenous and non-Indigenous narration. First Time Tragedy Second Time Farce also found its finance in the UK and Australia without the Bicentennial Authority’s assistance.

In an interview with Anna Murdoch, for whom Australia Daze “leaves an overriding impression of an infantile culture”, Isaac said.

“It’s the little Aussie battler version (of the Bicentennial); we have had a year of being force-fed pavlova and perhaps people are ready now to be more reflective […] I think the Bicentennial has finally brought home that we are not part of Britain, that we are not a colony of America […] we are part of the Asian-Pacific region which is the fastest growing part of the world.”6

Meanwhile, The Sydney Morning Herald’s (uncredited) reviewer called the film “a wakeup call to the nation”. 7 A strikingly emblematic image occurs in the opening montage: we see an Australian flag raised in the front yard of a suburban home, but it is raised upside-down, a gesture conventionally announcing distress at sea. In many ways, Australia Daze echoes today as a May Day call of Australia’s continuing “un-mastered past”.

Thanks to Alex, Cathie and Olympia at the RMIT’s AFI Research Collection.

• • •

Australia Daze (1988 Australia 75 mins)

Prod: Graeme Isaac Assoc Prod: Anna Grieve, Dennis O’Rourke Dir: Pat Fiske Segment Dir: Karin Altmann, Mario Andreacchio, Graham Chase, Sue Cornwell, Ruth Cullen, Bernice Daly, Jack Davis, Jim Everett, Jen Feray, Martin Goddard, Trevor Graham, John Hughes, Tony Jones, Jeni Kendall, Ned Lander, Dick Marks, Penny McDonald, Dennis O’Rourke, Christine Sammers, Carole Sklan, Tony Steinbecker, Paul Tait, Gordon Taylor, Jeni Thornley, Nick Torrens, Madelon Wilkins Ed: Denise Haslem Mus: Davood Tabrizi Snd: Ian McLoughlin

Endnotes:

  1. The author of this piece, with Carole Sklan, directed Australia Daze sequences in Cairns.
  2. Keith Connolly, “Daze of Our Lives,” The Herald, 9 December 1988
  3. Verity Burgmann, “Flogging the Bicentenary,” Arena 82 (1988): p. 12.
  4. Tim Rowse, “… Fallen Among Gentlemen: A Memoir of the Bicentennial History Project,” Australian Historical Studies 23 (October 1988): p. 91.
  5. Geoffrey Blainey, “Mr Hawke’s Other Bicentennial Scandal”, Institute of Public Affairs Review 39.3 (Summer 1985–1986): p. 16.”
  6. Graeme Isaac, quoted in The Age, 9 December 1988.
  7. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 1988.

About The Author

John Hughes – a writer, director and producer of documentary and drama for film, television and online – has an ongoing fascination with the interventions of groundbreaking filmmakers in Australian documentary. Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia completes a film trilogy with Film-Work (1981) and The Archive Project (2006).